Lifting the lid on dark secrets
VatiLeaks scandalRobert Mickens
- 13 October 2012
The security breach was considered one of the most serious in modern Vatican history. The papal butler, an Italian layman named Paolo Gabriele, was caught red-handed with thousands of sensitive documents that he either photocopied or stole in original form from Pope Benedict XVI's apartment and then leaked to an Italian journalist. The reporter, Gianluigi Nuzzi, selected dozens of those stolen papers - many showing instances of financial corruption, mismanagement, factional fighting and careerism involving the priests and bishops that run the Roman Curia - and published them in a best-selling book called Sua Santità ("His Holiness").
Mr Gabriele was ordered to stand trial in a court case that ended last week exactly as most commentators had predicted. He was convicted of aggravated theft and, as Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ strongly suggested after his sentencing last Saturday, he is likely to receive a papal pardon. The presiding judge condemned the 46-year-old Gabriele to 18 months' house arrest in the Vatican City flat where he lives with his wife and three children. And it appears that after the Pope pardons him, he will be given a new assignment inside the tiny papal enclave. There, and only half in jest, people say Mr Gabriele's minders will give him a job more suited to his natural talents, such as running a photocopy machine in a low-security department.
Jokes aside, this has not been a laughing matter - certainly not for the people running the Vatican nor for the world's Catholic bishops. By revealing the Pope's private letters to the general public, Nuzzi has applied ever-darker hues to the already unflattering portrait many people, including large numbers of Catholics, have drawn of the Church's hierarchy. When he triggered the so-called VatiLeaks scandal back in late January by first revealing documents on an Italian television programme called Gli Intoccabili ("The Untouchables"), the bishops were still struggling to restore their credibility as moral leaders after their colossal mishandling of the clergy sex-abuse crisis.
As well as being detailed in the television documentary, the documents also featured in articles by journalist Marco Lillo in the left-leaning Rome-based daily, Il Fatto Quotidiano. The Vatican's first response to the leaks was predictable - shoot the messenger. The Secretariat of State and the Holy See press office issued condemnations and made legal threats against the reporters. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, the Secretary of State who was depicted as inept and incompetent in many of the leaked documents, excoriated the media for fuelling sensationalism. He sarcastically chided journalists for trying to "act like Dan Brown", the author of the fantasy novel The Da Vinci Code. But never once did anyone at the Vatican deny the authenticity of the documents or their contents. And in the nearly 10 months since then, not a single Vatican official has addressed the serious and scandalous issues that emerged from the leaked papers.
The deputy Secretary of State in charge of the Vatican's internal affairs, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, announced in March that Pope Benedict had ordered two high-level inquiries into the leaks. The first one would be a criminal investigation under the supervision of Vatican City's civil judiciary and its police force, or gendarmes. Their task was to find the mole or moles that were supplying the journalists with this top-secret material. The other investigation was to be administrative, conducted by three cardinals all over the age of 80. They were discreetly to interview confrères and Vatican employees at all levels in order to get an "overall view of the situation". It was not clear if the Pope had ordered the cardinals' commission to also examine the scandalous content of many of the documents.
At first, priests and monsignori in the Roman Curia shrugged at what they believed was mere posturing. "This is all show," one veteran official assured me. "These old buffers in the commission aren't going to do a thing. Nothing will happen," he predicted. But the documents kept leaking out, some appearing in other Italian newspapers. Then on 20 May the Nuzzi book finally appeared. And less than a week later the Vatican press office announced that the gendarmes had arrested Paolo Gabriele after finding stolen papal documents in his residence. Various media reported that other people were also involved, but the head of the Vatican's press office, Fr Lombardi, insisted that the former butler was the only person under investigation, and maintained this line for nearly three months.
On 13 August, the dead of summer when all of Italy was beginning the week-long Ferragosto holiday, the Vatican's chief prosecutor, Nicola Picardi, published the indictment against the former butler. And, lo and behold, for the very first time the Vatican admitted that Gabriele had not acted alone. On the second page of Picardi's 35-page dossier, which was distributed by the Holy See press office to the handful of journalists still in Rome, it was announced that Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer technician at the Secretariat of State, had also been arrested. He was imprisoned on 25 May (a day after the butler) and released less than 24 hours later. The indictment said that he, too, would be put on trial for aiding and abetting Mr Gabriele.
This was a dramatic and damning revelation. It has made it difficult to believe that anything the Vatican has claimed about the leaks, the former butler or his trial has been, as the famous phrases goes, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"Among the world's journalists who were awaiting the outcome of the proceedings, there wasn't a single one - except for those in the ‘Church is always right' camp - that believed the fairy tale of the butler who singlehandedly orchestrated the greatest operation in recent centuries of unhinging the image of the Curia." That was the opinion of veteran Italian journalist and author Marco Politi. Writing last Sunday in Il Fatto Quotidiano, he called Gabriele's court case a "show trial" where all the players recited their lines "according to script". He noted that the judges excluded any possibility that the former butler had any serious accomplices.
Yet, during his trial Gabriele told the court he had "confided" in at least four people, including two cardinals, sharing with them his concerns about the corruption he was witnessing inside the Vatican. They included Cardinal Paolo Sardi, who worked many years in the Secretariat of State before becoming Patron of the Knights of Malta in 2009; Cardinal Angelo Comastri, vicar general for Vatican City since 2006; and Ingrid Stampa, a Secretariat of State official who was a long-time aide to Cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope. Prosecutor Picardi never probed deeply into the nature of Gabriele's relationship with these people or if they were possible accomplices. Will he dare in his continuing investigations?
And how is it possible that a man described as "simple" and "of average intelligence" could know which of the documents that ended up in the Nuzzi book were of real importance, given that many of them were not in Italian, the only language he knows. One of them was a letter to the Pope in German, written by Aldegonde Brenninkmeijer, a Catholic philanthropist who accused the Roman Curia of betraying the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. Why would Mr Gabriele be interested in that, unless someone instructed him to look for it? It is more likely that someone, perhaps the person or people in the Vatican that helped Mr Gabriele get his job inside the papal apartment, instructed him to smuggle out specific papers. The Vatican gendarmes said they found 82 boxes crammed with "thousands and thousands" of documents, "some of them originals with the Pope's signature", in a "very, very large cupboard" in the Gabriele home. How could he have photocopied and removed all that paper from Pope's apartment, even over the course of the six years he worked there?
The VatiLeaks scandal also raises questions of confidentiality. Can bishops, statesmen or anyone else who corresponds with the Pope be sure that any sensitive information they send him will not be stolen and made public? And one is left to wonder if there are other documents somewhere that a journalist is still waiting to publish. But even in the face of all these concerns, the most serious aspect of the scandal is that it has reinforced a longstanding stereotype of the Vatican - and by association, the Catholic Church - as being secretive and parsimonious with the truth.
As one translation of Luke's Gospel puts it, "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much."